Friday, February 8, 2008

School Spending

This picture is from last month's Atlantic magazine. It shows spending per pupil, by county, in the United States. In this post, a blogger at the Atlantic draws several conclusions regarding education. And I'm not sure they're right:

1) "That's the American tradition of local control at work. But while this is very much our tradition, it's not a very good one. It doesn't really make sense to have the standard of what counts as reading proficiency to be different in Massachusetts than it is in Alabama."
- My response to this is, why not? The alternative is a centrally mandated reading proficiency (or math, or science) standard. And while we could likely agree on the basics, what about at the margins? Should kids be required to take a literature class, to take a high level grammar class, to learn to write poetry? The argument is never about the obvious basics of education, the argument is always about the nuances. And having different localities able to enact their own nuanced versions of education seems the better way to approach things, since there is no right answer.

2) "Few other countries do things the American way, and they're generally getting better results. It's time for us to change."
- On what basis are we measuring this? Some standardized test scores? Do I really care that all the Japanese kids can answer a math test faster and more accurately than the American kids? If you want to drill children in how to answer standardized tests, then be my guest, and we can be #1! Yeah, America! However, when it comes to the actual application of human capital to things that matter, we do it better than anyone else. Everyone else copies our inventions, our culture, our products, and our businesses. Now locally, change may make sense if your school is failing, but that is different than presuming the whole system has to change as one.

3) "These huge gaps are hardly the be-all and end-all of our education problems in the United States, but they're hard to justify. It's just as important to educate children in Alabama as it is to educate them in Massachusetts, but kids in the latter state get double the money of kids in the former"
- The real question is why they get double the money. If you look at the map, there is a pretty close association with school spending and cost of living. While kids in Alabama only get half the money, it only costs half as much to hire teachers or build new schools in Alabama. Some, and I don't know how much, but some, of these discrepancies are just tied to differences in cost of living. Secondly, while I agree that each child deserves a decent education, I also believe that each family is ultimately responsible for their own child, so that if people in Alabama have chosen to educate their kids less, there is little I can do about it. The beauty of the local system of financing is that I am not subject to a one size fits all system. If you think people in Alabama should spend more on education, then go to Alabama and lobby for higher property taxes and increased spending.

Ultimately, I have a real problem with arguments that start with, "Look at X, it's so unequal across America. It should be the same everywhere." Why? On what authority? For what purpose? Inequality in outcomes is not sufficient to prove that "something is wrong." You have to actually document what is wrong with the discrepancy. And this post doesn't do that.

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